On This Day – 11 August 1796 Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin prepares to receive its first prisoners


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It’s such a huge tourist attraction today that it’s quite shocking to realise there were proposals as recently as the 1950s to demolish much of it. But Kilmainham Gaol survived intact to play a huge part in the current decade of centenaries.

It opened in 1796 and even then, it was a grim place, housing men, women, and children as young as twelve. Some were held there prior to transportation to Australia, others were lodged in the prison before their executions, some served many years there in dreadful conditions, often sharing a cell with up to four others.

Almost every self-respecting nationalist, including some far removed from revolutionary politics, spent a spell at their Majesties’ pleasure in Kilmainham.  A number did so prior to being hanged or shot. The list of guests constitutes a distinguished club, Henry Joy McCracken, Oliver Bond, Napper Tandy, Robert Emmet, Michael Dwyer, William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Charles Stewart Parnell, and Michael Davitt.

Attached to the Gaol was a magistrates’ court where cases would be despatched, or, if a serious crime was involved, the preliminary process leading to indictment would take place. It was here that the alleged killers of the Chief Secretary, Frederick Cavendish and his Under Secretary, Thomas Henry Burke, in Phoenix Park in 1882—the so-called Invincibles—appeared for remand hearings before being committed to Green Street court for trial. And it was here that they first realised the game was up, when one of their number, James Carey, presented himself as a prosecution witness. He had opted to turn state’s evidence to save his own skin. His first appearance at Kilmainham Magistrates’ Court was greeted with roars of rage from the dock. A reporter observed that one of the accused, Joe Brady:

 

Glared at him and stretched forward towards him [had he] been able to reach him, I believe he would have been torn to pieces, for Brady was a powerful young fellow, and for the moment he was for all the world like a tiger on the spring.

 

The prisoners were returned to their cells and a few weeks later Carey’s evidence sent five of them to the hangman, a seasoned veteran named William Marwood. His customary advice to his victims before they met their maker was, ‘Now then, hold your head back and you’ll die easy’. They were all executed in the Kilmainham Prison Yard, and their bodies were interred under the scaffold erected to hang them.

Three decades later it was the turn of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. Fourteen were executed there over a nine-day period in May. The first to die, on 3 May, were Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke and Thomas MacDonagh. They faced firing squads of twelve British soldiers, mostly drawn from the Sherwood Foresters, who had been badly cut up on Mount Street Bridge the previous week. There was little regard to sensitivities on either side. No Catholic priest was allowed to be present to minister to the prisoners, and the same firing squad—consisting mainly of young recruits—was expected to execute all three men. A number of female prisoners, including Countess Markievicz, were rudely awoken by the volleys from the stone-breakers’ yard.

After the establishment of the Irish Free State the prison continued to be used during the Civil War. Around six-hundred Republican prisoners were incarcerated there, many of them women. One of the last to be released was Eamon de Valera.

The prison was closed by the Free State government in 1929, and might well have been demolished in the 1930s, except it was deemed too expensive to do so. The work of organisations, like the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society, ensured that it was eventually taken over by the Office of Public Works, and became one of the most visited historical sites in Dublin.

It has also been a useful location for a number of films. These include the adaptation of Brendan Behan’s prison drama, The Quare Fellow, as well as the Michael Caine film The Italian Job, and Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. Collins himself was fortunate, he never actually served time there.

Kilmainham Gaol was finally completed and prepared to accept its first prisoners two hundred and twenty-one years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day – 5 May 1916 William Evelyn Wylie and the court-martial of William Corrigan

 

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There were many unsung heroes of the 1916 Rising. The courageous Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, for example, who risked her life to carry Pearse’s flag of truce along Moore Street, and then took his surrender note, under heavy fire, to the remaining Volunteer garrisons. Or Sean McLoughlin, the ‘boy commandant’, promoted to that rank by James Connolly, who was twenty years of age when he played a pivotal role in the evacuation of the GPO.

William Evelyn Wylie may be ‘unsung’, ‘deeply flawed’ or just an anti-hero, depending on your point of view. He was a successful barrister who, when the Rising began, helped to seal off Trinity College, and deny that strategic position to the rebels. As it turned out the Volunteers didn’t really have much interest, whether they should have or not.

After Pearse’s surrender Wylie was tapped to participate in the court martial process as lead attorney. He prosecuted ‘Prisoner No. 1’, Pearse himself, and was hugely impressed with the Volunteer commander’s conduct at his brief trial. At the court martial of one of the most tragic figures of the rebellion, Thomas McDonagh, Wylie pulled up the presiding Judge, whose name was—I kid you not—General Charles Blackader.  Blackader sought to use the 1916 Proclamation as conclusive evidence against the prisoner. Wylie, who actually had a copy of the document in his possession, pointed out that it was inadmissible. Although McDonagh’s name was appended to the printed version, the court would require the presentation of the original signed copy in order to convict him.

As the courts martial proceeded Wylie, a unionist and a strong opponent of the principles underlying the rebellion, became increasingly concerned at the overriding of due process. He wrote a memoir of that week, which was left to his daughter after his death. In this he described how he took matters into his own hands. Although no defence attorney had been appointed in any of the one hundred and sixty abbreviated trials—an illegal procedure  in itself—Wylie took it upon himself to act as both prosecution and defence. While the three presiding military judges were considering their verdict in a case, Wylie would step outside to see who was coming next. He would then advise the accused of their rights, and inquire whether or not they wanted any witnesses to be present. Pearse, McDonagh and Thomas Clarke had not been made aware that such a facility was available.

It was while engaged in this Janus-like activity, on the fourth day of the courts martial, that Wylie realised, to his intense surprise, the next prisoner was a Dublin solicitor, William Corrigan, who had briefed him on many occasions in the recent past.  Corrigan had been taken prisoner at the South Dublin Union. When the court-martial began, with Blackader presiding, Wylie took the unusual step of arguing the case for and against the prisoner. When Blackader asked why Wylie had adopted this unorthodox  approach, the barrister revealed the nature of Corrigan’s profession. He then added that he had an uncashed cheque from the accused Volunteer in his pocket which might be void were he to be executed.

Corrigan was one of more than ninety prisoners to be sentenced to death, but in his case the court martial recommended clemency, and Wylie’s brief fee was thus secured.

Later, according to his own account, Wylie was consulted by the commander of Crown Forces in Ireland, General Sir John Maxwell, about the need to carry out the death sentence passed down on one Eamon de Valera, Third Battalion commandant. Wylie told Maxwell that he didn’t see any need to execute de Valera, as he was unlikely to cause trouble in the future. ‘I don’t think he’s very important’ said the clearly misinformed barrister.

Wylie, a keen cyclist, who is mentioned in this context in James Joyce’s Ulysees, went on to defend Sinn Fein prisoners during the War of Independence, despite his strong unionist sympathies. He was appointed to the High Court by the first Free State government, and served there until 1936.

William Evelyn Wylie prosecuted and defended Lieutenant William Corrigan of the Irish Volunteers, before a court martial in Richmond barracks, one hundred and one years ago, on this day.

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On This Day – 14 October 1882 – Birth of Eamon de Valera

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One of the most successful Irish movies of the year has been the adaptation of Colm Toibín’s novel Brooklyn. But that borough of the city of New York has a much more compelling Irish association. It was the chosen destination of an Irish immigrant Catherine Coll, from Co. Limerick, and it was from there that she met a young Spanish sculptor, got married and had a son in 1882. That son, their only child, went on to become the dominant Irish political personality of the 20th century, Eamon de Valera.

 

Not that the young de Valera, named Edward by his parents, knew much about his mother Catherine and his father Vivion. The latter was dead by the time he was three and his mother was forced by economic circumstances to have her son sent to Ireland in 1885 to be brought up by relatives in Bruree, Co. Limerick. There he was known as Eddie Coll. He later became a scholarship boy in Blackrock College where he was to become a teacher. In the 1911 census he was still Edward de Valera but his involvement in the Gaelic League sparked an increased interest in Irish. Until the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 his politics were those of Home Rule, but the transformation of his philosophy was ultimately to lead to his command of the 3rd Battalion of the Volunteers in the Easter Rising of 1916.

 

Despite the execution of men far more junior than he de Valera survived the violent aftermath of the Rising. There is a myth that his death sentence was commuted because of his American citizenship. In fact it was more to do with timing and happenstance. In the wake of the controversial execution of James Connolly when General Sir John Maxwell, British military governor in Ireland, asked the young Irish prosecutor William Wylie whether de Valera should be shot on the basis that he might cause trouble in the future, Wylie made the memorable but hardly clairvoyant observation ‘I wouldn’t think so, sir, I don’t think he is important enough. From all I can hear he is not one of the leaders.’

 

After 1916 his star was in the ascendant. He won the East Clare by-election in 1917, led Sinn Fein to a sweeping victory in the 1918 General Election and escaped from Lincoln Jail in 1919. But his personality often let him down. In Lincoln Prison he made few friends among his fellow Republican inmates. Famously, in the exercise yard, he played handball alone. When he went to the USA after his escape, to raise funds and awareness, he succeeded in falling out with the political leaders of Irish America, John Devoy and Daniel Cohalan.

 

Never too far from controversy his decision in late 1921 not to accompany the Irish delegation to the London peace talks has been condemned, justifiably or otherwise, as a convenient cop out designed to ensure he remained untarnished by the inevitable fudge of the Treaty. His subsequent rejection of the agreement signed by Collins and Griffith, and the counter proposals of his ‘Document Number 2’, have been criticized as Jesuitical and self-serving.

 

He was largely sidelined during the Civil War – notwithstanding the contrary evidence advanced by the plot of Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins – and seemed to depart from the principles he had enunciated in January 1922 when, in 1926, he and his followers took their seats in the Dail. This was essentially the governing parliament of a state that fell far short of the Republic for which he had argued in the divisive debate over the Treaty.

 

1932 saw the perennial poacher turn long-term gamekeeper when Fianna Fail won the General Election that year. Bar two brief periods of multi-party coalition he led the country for the next twenty-seven years, wrote the constitution that still, more or less, governs us today, and can be accused of presiding over an economy only rescued from stagnation by his successor Sean Lemass.

 

But he also, arguably, had the nous and the courage to lead Ireland through an economic war with our nearest neighbor in the 1930s, and to keep the country neutral during World War Two, as well as a number of other significant achievements.

 

Like or loathe him you cannot ignore Eamon de Valera – a much more impressive name for a political leader, it has to be said, than Eddie Coll.

 

Eamon de Valera, was born in New York one hundred and thirty four years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day – 29 April 1916 – Patrick Pearse agrees to unconditional surrender

 

 

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With Elizabeth O’Farrell obscured                         Minus Elizabeth O’Farrell entirely

 

It was never going to be much more than a futile gesture to begin with, but few of those in the know, who gathered in Dublin on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916 for Irish Volunteer manoueuvers, would have expected the rebellion they had planned to last as long as a week. The failure of the German steamer the Aud to land 25,000 rifles and a million rounds of ammunition on Good Friday, the arrest of Roger Casement in Kerry and the decision of Volunteer commander Eoin MacNeill to countermand the order for units to assemble on Easter Sunday, had lengthened the odds against the Easter Rising being anything other than a brief skirmish.

That it lasted almost a week was down to British incompetence as much as it was to Irish luck or pluck. Though there were inefficiencies on both sides. While the rebels famously failed to take the wide-open Dublin Castle, the well-positioned Trinity College and the strategically important Crow Street Telephone exchange, the flower of the British administration in Ireland was enjoying the fleshpots of Fairyhouse Racecourse while they were being made fools of in Dublin.

Two myths among many. Patrick Pearse did not read the proclamation of the Irish republic from the steps of the General Post Office. He read it from in front of the building. The GPO, then, and now, doesn’t have any steps. The document he was reading bore the signatures of the members of the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and James Connolly representing the Irish Citizen’s Army. But it was not their death warrant. The document Pearse was reading was of no use to a prosecutor even in the drumhead courts-martial that followed the rebellion. The reason was simple – the names were printed. The authorities would have had to produce a signed original for it to be of any practical assistance in convicting the signatories.

Most of the fatalities incurred, as the British sought to take back the city of Dublin, were civilians, more than 250 of them. Forty of those were under the age of sixteen. One of the civilian fatalities was the pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, brutally murdered on the orders of an insane British officer, Captain J.C. Bowen Colthurst from Cork as he went about thr city trying to prevent looting. 64 members of the Volunteers or the Irish Citizens Army lost their lives, as did 116 British soldiers. Most of those were from the Sherwood Foresters, picked off on Mount Street Bridge by a small unit sent from the nearby Bolands Mills by 3rd Battalion Commandant Eamon De Valera. When the Forester’s disembarked in Kingstown – now Dun Laoghaire – they were surprised to hear people speaking English. They assumed they’d just landed in wartime France.

James Connolly may or may not have claimed that capitalists would never destroy property even to end a rebellion – he is unlikely to have been sufficiently naïve to have ever said any such thing – but destroy it they did. Much of the centre of Dublin was laid waste by the shells of the gunboat Helga and British artillery stationed in Phibsborough and Trinity College.

The Volunteers’ Headquarters in the General Post Office was never actually taken by the British forces – it was abandoned by the Volunteers before its total destruction by shelling. Shortly after the evacuation of the GPO the rebel leadership bowed to the inevitable six days after the Rising began. That began a busy day for Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell who was given the dangerous job of informing the other garrisons, most of which remained untaken, that the Rising was at an end.

Patrick Pearse agreed to an unconditional surrender one hundred years ago on this day.

 

On This Day – 11.3.1858 The birth of Thomas Clarke

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When it comes to the issue of the organization of the 1916 insurrection we have to look well beyond the esoteric, if palpably sincere, philosophizing of Pearse and even the military nous and pragmatism of Connolly and look to the quiet man in the midst of the fury.

Thomas Clarke, the self effacing tobacconist, was the spine, the heart and the genius of the Easter Rising. While he was surrounded by capable and resourceful allies it was Clarke who drove the rebellion.

The first oddity associated with the life of Tom Clarke is his place of birth. He was actually born in England, in the Isle of Wight. The second was his association with the British Army. His father was a serving soldier. At the age of 20 Clarke made the decision that was to inform the rest of his life when he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Dungannon, Co.Tyrone. Two years later he was forced to flee to the USA to avoid arrest.

For fifteen years of his life he was someone else. Clarke was sent from America to London in 1883 to lead the bombing campaign masterminded by O’Donovan Rossa. He did so under the alias Henry Wilson and it was under that name that he served fifteen years in British prisons after his arrest and conviction. While in jail he met the old Republican John Daly. After his release Clarke married Daly’s niece Kathleen. The family didn’t approve. She was twenty-one years younger than her husband and marriage to a felon, albeit a jailed Republican, was not exactly what they had in mind for their girl. In addition Clarke, after a tough decade and a half in prison, looked far older than his years.

After spending almost a decade in the USA the Clarkes returned to Ireland in 1907 and Tom opened a humble tobacconist’s shop in Dublin. While outwardly settled and legitimate in fact Clarke continued his work with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, most notably as a member of that organisation’s Military Council. He became a sort of mentor to the likes of Denis McCullough, Bulmer Hobson and, in particular, Sean McDermott. Because of his background as a convicted felon, however, Clarke steered clear of overt political involvement. He left it to others to infiltrate, at the highest level, organisations like the GAA, the Gaelic League and, from 1913, the Irish Volunteers.

In 1916 Clarke essentially became the link to the ‘old’ Fenians who had risen in 1867, although he himself was only a child at that time. Acting on the Republican axiom that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ he was determined to take advantage of the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. He worked assiduously to make plans for a rising around the country with the IRB at its core using the Volunteers as their battering ram. A reluctant Hobson and McCullough were jettisoned along the way, the likes of Pearse, Connolly, Plunkett and McDonagh were recruited.

The seven members of the Military Council – Eamon Ceannt being the one often ignored – became signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. Clarke should probably have become President of the Provisional Government but preferred to leave that honour to the more flamboyant and better known Pearse. Clarke himself was an anonymous figure, familiar only to fellow revolutionaries and ‘G’ Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.

Clarke was stationed in the GPO during the Rising and was the second leader, after Pearse, to be executed. His last message to Kathleen ended with the words ‘we die happy’. Familiar photographs of Clarke depict a thin, bespectacled, old man. He was actually only fifty-nine years of age at the time of his death.

Thomas Clarke, conspirator, Republican, tobacconist and victim of a 1916 firing squad, was born one hundred and fifty-eight years ago, on this day.

 

 

 

 

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